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Women in Augustus Egg's Paintings: Sexually Passive?

 

The Victorian attitudes towards the adulterer and the adulteress differed greatly. This was reflected in literature, politics, laws and paintings amongst other entities. The outcome for an adulterous woman was far more costly than those for an adulterous man. The social consequences for a middle-class woman affected her husband, children and indeed her home. There seemed to be no redemption for the adulteress as Nead states, ‘a fall from virtue was final.’ [1] It seemed more acceptable for a man to be sexually impure because it was widely accepted that a man’s sexual desires were not always quenched. A woman however, was in comparison, sexually passive and therefore had no excuse for indecent behaviour. This is reflected in the words of William Acton in which he claims, ‘I should say that the majority of women (happily for them) are not much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.’ [2] Acton also equated a woman’s infidelity, ‘the existence of sexual excitement’ with lunacy, ‘a form of insanity’. [3] Therefore, the Victorian mind-set dictated that a woman did not have sexual desires in the way that men did and as a result of this any inappropriate conduct was a form of mental instability. If one examines Augustus Egg’s paintings one can observe that he does not merely display women who are sexually dormant.

Augustus Egg, Travelling Companions

Although Egg’s Travelling Companions (1862) is considered to be a reflection on railway travel and the way in which the different classes were segregated, one cannot ignore the sexual connotations that are evident in the painting. The painting displays two young ladies who appear to be identical, and yet upon closer inspection are not. It seems as though the girl on the left has been awakened sexually despite the fact that she is asleep. This can only be detected in comparison with the girl on the right. Firstly, the young lady on the right has flowers set beside her as opposed to the other lady who has a basket of fruit. The flowers convey the virginity and sexual virtue of the girl on the right whereas the fruit beside the girl on the left implies her virginity has been lost and her innocence has been replaced by sexual indulgence and consequently sexual maturity. This analogy continues as one studies the way in which the companion on the right has the curtain slightly drawn to shade her from the sunlight, as opposed to the lady on the left whose curtain allows the light to expose her fully. In addition, the companion on the left has removed her gloves and is thus further exposed physically. The hat of the lady on the left is positioned slightly to the left in contrast to her companion whose hat sits centrally upon her lap. Again it appears as though the girl on the left has exposed herself sexually in that she is less guarded than her sister. This notion is furthered when one considers the posture of the two companions. The one on the right seems more composed and is reading a book whereas the one on the left is leaning back exposing her neck, and is asleep. Although one could question that if this girl has been awoken sexually then why is she the one who is sleeping in the painting? However, it is possible to argue that this displays her overall lack of constraint and propriety that is portrayed by the other young lady. Even the hair of the companion on the left seems to have fallen out compared to the girl on the right whose hair is pinned back in a controlled manner. If one examines the shape of the carriage window in conjunction with the symmetry of the girls’ dresses one can observe there is a shape which resembles that of a chalice. This traditionally symbolizes the womb and fertility, thus accentuating the theme of sexual awakening. Therefore, Egg presents a young woman who appears to be sexually passive and another who is not. One can speculate that the two ladies are the same person and this consequently, would indicate that a transition from sexual unconsciousness to sexual enlightenment has occurred. However, if one is to argue that this picture depicts a girl who has fallen sexually in contrast to her companion, then this painting serves as a mere “freeze-frame”. It does not represent the consequences of the girl’s fall. Whereas Egg’s Past and Present (1858) is clearly a sequential set of paintings which display the consequences of the wife’s fall not only on her own self but on her husband, daughters and her household.



[1] Lynda Nead. ‘Forms of Deviancy: The Adulteress’, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain . (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988) 48-90 49.

 

[2] Lynda Nead. ‘Forms of Deviancy: The Adulteress’, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain . (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988) 48-90 50.

[3] Lynda Nead. ‘Forms of Deviancy: The Adulteress’, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain . (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988) 48-90 50.

 

Egg-past-present

Augustus Egg, Past and Present

According to Victorian domestic ideology, a woman’s sexual fall was unlike a man’s, in that it was irredeemable. This notion is evident not only in the outcome of Past and Present but it is also displayed in the symbolism in no. 1 of Past and Present. On the rear wall there is a painting (above the portrait of the wife) of the Biblical account of the fall of Eve in the Garden of Eden. This metaphor is furthered in the apple which has been cut in two, one of the halves having fallen to the floor alongside the wife who has fallen physically. In the Victorian construction of middle-class society, the body/house imagery which the woman was associated with was the heart, and as Davidoff states, they were ‘keeper of the Hearth’. This role however, has come to an end for the woman in this painting, this is reflected in the way she is positioned on the floor facedown with the hearth behind her. [1] In addition, the children in the picture are assembling a house of cards which has just begun to descend, this indicates that their mother’s actions will not only affect the daughters but also their family unit and ultimately their property. This is displayed in No. 2 which features the daughters after their father’s death. The mother’s sexual deviancy has tainted her daughters, as Nead notes, ‘they are reduced to comparative poverty and are stigmatized by their mother’s adultery.’ [2]

A review of the trilogy in The Athenaeum defends the woman in the narrative and speculates that the deviancy was as a result of the husband’s misconduct towards her, claiming that ‘he has beaten his wife to the floor.’3] However, this review only reflects the Victorian attitude concerning the woman’s lack of sexual desire and therefore suggests she is unable to perform such an immoral deed unprompted. Therefore, although Victorian critics and attitudes thought it unusual for a middle-class woman to be sexually excited and subsequently impure, Egg’s paintings challenge this idea  both in Travelling Companions and  Past and Present. In these paintings he depicts a young woman and a married woman who have strayed sexually. In Traveling Companions he uses metaphor to display the contrast between or the transition of sexual passivity and sexual awareness. He does not display the long-term consequences of the girl’s conduct but he does imply an outward change in her conduct and appearance. Similarly, Past and Present displays the devastating infectious consequences of when the woman is sexually deviant.



[1] Leonore Davidoff. ‘Class and Gender in Victorian England’, Worlds Between. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995) 103-150 105.

[2] Lynda Nead. ‘Forms of Deviancy: The Adulteress’, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988) 48-90 74.

[3] Lynda Nead. ‘Forms of Deviancy: The Adulteress’, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988) 48-90 77.

Bibliography

Davidoff, Leonore. ‘Class and Gender in Victorian England’, Worlds Between. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995. 103-150.

Egg, Augustus. Travelling Companion. 1862.

Egg, Augustus. Past and Present. 1858.

Nead, Lynda. ‘Forms of Deviancy: The Adulteress’, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1988. 48-90.

This page was written by Erika Frank


 

This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.

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